CEMERS LECTURE, co-sponsored with the Department of History
Wednesday, October 9
IASH conference room (LN 1106)
Reception to follow
Leah DeVun, Department of History, Rutgers University
“Jews, Hermaphrodites, and Other Animals: On the Boundaries of the Human in the Middle Ages”
This paper examines hermaphroditism in light of questions about the nature of humanity in the late Middle Ages. During this period, scholastic natural philosophers – inspired by newly available classical texts – began to construct taxonomies of organisms in which sexual difference played a central role. Scholastics identified the absence of distinct sex, shifting sex, and monstrous genitalia as key characteristics of nonhuman categories of beings, including plants and animals. The apparent boundaries between male/female and human/nonhuman intersected with other sorts of boundaries: visual art in bestiaries, maps, travel literature, and marginalia indicated that Jews and Muslims too were in some sense hermaphrodites. Sexual difference became a way to distinguish between not only humans and non-humans, but also Christians and non-Christians and Europeans and non-Europeans. If humans were distinct from animals inasmuch as they had only two sexes, then humans who displayed multiple sexes or the attributes of multiple sexes approached the condition of beasts and therefore lost the subjectivity and dignity unique to humanity. I argue that in a range of texts and images hermaphrodites operate as pivotal figures that reinforced not only sexual, but also religious and racial difference.